Wednesday, August 27, 2014

CORPUS CHRISTI (Caller Times) –

The Union Theater was there, at the southeast corner of Chaparral and Lawrence, then the St. James Hotel, then Lichtenstein’s fourth and final location. Now something else is going up on this historic site.

First was the Union Theater, one of the oldest structures in Corpus Christi. It was built in 1845 when Zachary Taylor’s 4,000 troops were concentrated at Corpus Christi preparing for the Mexican War. The theater was built to entertain the troops. It could seat 800.

The builder, Charles Bryant, was an exiled architect from Maine. He became involved in a rebellion in Canada and crossed the border with Maine volunteers. When the rebellion failed, Bryant came close to being hanged. He left for Texas.

Two months after Bryant’s theater opened, Taylor’s army departed for the Rio Grande, in March 1846. The theater sat empty. Bryant went to Galveston where he got a commission to design St. Mary’s Cathedral, a beautiful building that’s still standing.

Bryant returned to Corpus Christi with plans to reopen the Union Theater as a hotel. He became mustering officer for the Texas Rangers and was on his way to Austin when he was killed by a raiding party of Lipan Apaches. He was killed on the Chocolate Bayou not far from Refugio. John Grumbles’ company of 23 Rangers chased the Indians 300 miles before giving up.

Bryant left a widow, six children, an estate of $1,500, town lots in Corpus Christi, and architect’s tools worth $5. His family later received 640 acres from the state in recognition for his services. No sketch or photograph of Bryant or his Union Theater has survived.

The Union Theater was torn down in 1868 to clear the site for a new hotel called the St. James, being built by cattleman J.T. “Tom” James but named for a famous hotel in Kansas City. Edward Sidbury was in charge of constructing the St. James. It had a wide porch gallery on the east and south sides, facing Chaparral and Lawrence. At the back of the hotel were clumps of mesquite and cactus.

Before it was completed, James sold the hotel to William “Billy” Rogers, who is a story in himself. Rogers survived a massacre on the Arroyo Colorado in 1846, at the beginning of the Mexican War, in which his father and a brother were killed.

Billy had his throat cut and was thrown in the Arroyo Colorado, but survived. In later years, Rogers and his brother Lieuen were said to prowl the border looking for the killers and, one by one, took their revenge. A slit throat on the Rio Grande was called Billy’s mark.

Rogers was a rancher and sheriff of Nueces County before he bought the hotel. He was a legislator, built Market Hall, and was the founder of the city’s fire department. He died on Dec. 17, 1877, at age 56. A reporter’s funeral note said, “Star Rifles, escort. Fire Department. Music (provided by Masons). Hearse. Family. Citizens on horseback. Citizens in carriages.”

After Rogers’ death, a Confederate veteran, William Biggio, became the manager of the St. James. Biggio was born in Italy and immigrated to Mobile, Ala. During the Civil War, he was the pilot of the Confederate ram Webb which tried to run the gauntlet of Union gunboats blocking the mouth of the Mississippi. The Webb was captured and Biggio became a prisoner. After the war, he moved to Rockport and in 1877 came to Corpus Christi to manage the St. James.

Under Biggio’s management, the St. James became known throughout Texas. It was the headquarters of gamblers and gunmen, ranchers and politicians. John Wesley Hardin, who once caused Wild Bill Hickok to back down in Abilene, stayed there. So did Ben Thompson. When Leander McNelly arrived in April 1875, his Rangers camped a mile from town while McNelly put up at the St. James. Congressman John Garner stayed at the St. James and so did Gov. Jim Hogg.

An article in the Caller once said, “While governors and congressmen banqueted in the dining rooms of the St. James, gamblers and happy-go-lucky cowboys faced each other across tables in backrooms, with poker chips drawn up in neat stacks before them and loaded revolvers beside them.”

In the 1880s, after the Tex-Mex railroad was built to Laredo, Corpus Christi got its first transit system, horse-drawn herdic coaches, which stopped at the St. James to pick up passengers. In the evenings, prominent citizens would lounge on the porch of the St. James and talk about the events of the day.

Anna Moore Schwein in her memoirs said the hotel hired a trio of Italian musicians from Cuero — Billy Falvella, Frank Pelligrino, and Tony Demarco. Judge Walter Timon said one of their favorite songs was “Listen to the Mockingbird.” They would finish the evening by playing “Home Sweet Home.”

Biggio, a generous man, would never turn a man away hungry, whether he could pay for a meal or not. When he became too feeble to run a hotel and retired in 1905, the Caller said the hotel under another manager would never be the same. Biggio kept the hotel ledgers from 1877 to 1905 (they were destroyed in the 1919 hurricane). When he died, soon after his retirement, the district court adjourned in respect.

In later years, the St. James was operated as a rooming house serving a motley clientele before it was finally closed. The Caller in an article on Jan. 4, 1937, called it a wreck and a firetrap, with cobwebby ceilings and wallpaper, stained and yellow, hanging from sagging walls. J.E. Garrett, a banker, was the owner when it was torn down in 1937.

Three years later, Lichtenstein’s was built on that site. Now Lichtenstein’s has been demolished to make way for a new apartment building, called the Cosmopolitan, which is going up fast. It will occupy one of the prime spots in downtown Corpus Christi, the site of the old Union Theater, St. James Hotel, and Lichtenstein’s last location.

Tearing down the old and replacing it with the new removes the visual context of our history. People will soon scratch their heads and ask, “Where was the old Lichtenstein building?” The Union Theater and the St. James already are long forgotten. How quickly the past is overlaid with progress.

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